Design concepts underlying the plan
Two of Harlow’s basic planning concepts were essential components of post-war modernist design: the neighbourhood concept, and the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Neither could be fully implemented except in the context of a new town. Neighbourhoods, which were projected by different planners to range from 3,000 to 10,000 in size, were to be large enough to support the efficient operation of local schools and retail facilities. Neighbourhoods were to be separated from each other by green spaces through which arterial connector roads would run. This would keep through traffic on the periphery. Within the neighbourhood, pedestrians would be accommodated on sidewalks and footpaths, cyclists on dedicated cycle tracks and local traffic on narrow roads. Critics have argued that traditional street patterns handle large volumes of traffic more efficiently, but the notion of car-free neighbourhoods, based on the so-called Radburn Plan, had a huge impact on the townscape of Harlow.
Harlow was designed to have seven residential neighbourhoods, located in four large quadrants. Three of them were provided with their own neighbourhood retail centre: The Stow, Bush Fair and Staple Tye. The fourth quadrant, containing Hare Street and Little Parndon, is served by the town centre that is also the principal retail and administrative centre for all of Harlow. Old Harlow continues to be served by its High Street that was redeveloped and pedestrianized in 1971. All the original residents had easy walking access to one of the 17 small ‘hatches’ which provided daily necessities, and usually a pub. Each neighbourhood had at least one primary school, accessible by pedestrian and bike paths.
The M11 was originally supposed to run along the west and north sides of the town, so Gibberd located the two industrial areas accordingly, Pinnacles on the west side and Temple Fields on the north. Unfortunately, the government decided in 1964 that the motorway should be on the east side of the town, on a more direct route to the third London airport at Stansted. Gibberd protested the decision, to no avail, arguing that this made as much sense as planning a sea-side town, and then moving the sea.
The A414 crosses enters Harlow at Junction 7 of the M11, travels north and then crosses Harlow along Edinburgh Way, the main east-west spine road in the north of the town. This road is badly congested, partly because of the decision to relocate the motorway. Heavy goods vehicles travelling from Pinnacles to the motorway are forced to drive all across the town. Traffic patterns and levels of congestion have also been affected by the decision to provide only one junction with the M11, south of the centre of the town. In 2016, after at least a decade of deliberation, the government decided to build a second junction with the M11 half-way between Harlow and Sawbridgeworth. This junction, feeding into Gilden Way, will have significant effects on traffic flows and volumes. Whether it will ameliorate the existing problems without causing new ones remains to be seen.
Congestion along Edinburgh Way has also been increased by the central government’s overturning of several Harlow Council’s refusals to grant planning permission for retail and commercial developments in what the Council considered 'non-traditional' locations. As a result, the road is now lined on both sides by ‘big box’ stores and power centres that can only be accessed comfortably and safely by car. The inevitable result is that retail trade in the High Street of Old Harlow, the Town Centre, and the three neighbourhood shopping precincts has suffered dramatic declines.
While the industrial and commercial sectors of Harlow generate a lot of vehicular traffic, their presence was not only hoped-for, but anticipated. A principal goal of the New Town strategy was that each town would be self-contained and socially-balanced. This meant that Development Corporations had to attract employers, and to make them as varied as possible, so that employees with a variety of trades and skill levels would be attracted to the town. Significant financial and other incentives were offered to companies, especially large ones, to help achieve this goal.
Harlow was fortunate in being able to attract a number of large employers to the town in the early days. The major firms have included Gilbeys Distillers, United Glass, Longman’s Publishing, Revertex (synthetic resins), Schreibers (furniture), Johnson Matthey Metals and Smith Kline Beecham (pharmaceuticals). Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) that became Northern Telecom and then Nortel. Only Longman’s, now part of Pearson Educational, continues to operate in Harlow. Nortel, a Canadian firm founded in Montreal in 1895, employed 3,000 people in Harlow before its cataclysmic collapse – the largest corporate bankruptcy in Canada to that time - in 2009. The site remained eerily empty until most of the buildings were demolished in 2015. It is now being redeveloped as Kao Park, a data centre and business park that has already attracted Arrow Electronics and Raytheon UK.
The Development Corporation also catered to smaller employers by building small, modular industrial premises that were available for lease in varying sizes for smaller firms. Many of these units are still in use along South road in Templefields, and in parts of The Pinnacles.
Not all the interesting characteristics of Harlow New Town can be discussed on this website. Those interested in further details should consult some of the sources listed in the bibliography. But there are a few developments that are sufficiently significant to warrant being mentioned and some details are provided in the ‘Important Developments in Harlow New Town’ section.